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Where Children Would Go (If They Never Learnt)

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Everybody starts out young, even if they don't remember it. It's what you do when you grow up, the kind of person you show the world, that everyone remembers.

A boy and a girl, born in different times. Meeting in war, in stasis, gripping each other tight when the world moves around them, reaching towards the sky and they are left to barely age. (This wasn't the plan at all, not in the beginning.)

Part 1A: James
He grows up in a hard-knock life that's no different than any other boy in that time, misbehaving and dodging hits from bullies and authority figures alike. It's Brooklyn in the 1930s, the Great Depression. His mom still has a job, by the grace of God (though they aren't particularly religious.) Bucky comes to be a lapsed Catholic, because what good is God when men wait all day for a loaf of bread that might not be there? but Bucky never says such things, because that's an invitation to get his ears boxed.

This is the boy that Steve Rogers knows, the one who drags him to Coney Island and makes him ride the Ferris Wheel in the car behind. He's got a silver tongue, slick charm and suave moves, but he always has time for Steve. (They share an apartment and sometimes the heat goes off, Bucky says he ate at the docks and gives Steve his share of rice. It's a lie and they both know it, but neither say a word, crawling into bed under a quilt, one of the few things Steve has left of his parents.)

Then the War comes. Steve wants to join up because it's the right thing to do, it's noble and he was weaned on stories of heroes and David & Goliath. Bucky though, he has a dark spot, tucked away that he doesn't let Steve catch sight of. It takes a certain kind of man to kill another, and Bucky is pretty sure he's one of them. He goes off to the European theatre, having passed the marksmanship tests with flying colors, and laughs at the idea of Captain America, poor sucker that he is.

Then his platoon is sent to Germany, infiltration and they're captured. It's cages and dank, the sour smell of piss and sweat and tears permeating everything. The HYDRA goons separate them, weak from strong, wheat from chaff, and Bucky makes himself known. He's strong, he's stuck by Steve this whole time (it's thoughts of that crazy scrappy guy back home that's kept Bucky company more than once. Bucky fights because he's good at it, and for Steve, just a little, because he can't do it himself. They're like brothers, they have the scars on their palms to prove it.)

So Bucky is taken back and it's for what passes for sterile in the middle of the forest, this concrete bunker with too-new technology. Then there's a table and straps and it's just like the commanders said: name, rank, serial number. Bucky's voice goes hoarse as needles plunge in and pain lights up every nerve ending. He's sweating, shaking, it doesn't ever end.

Until a klaxon wails and Steve's face like an oasis in the desert. Bucky must be dreaming but he isn't. and his best friend from back home, scrawny chicken legs and asthmatic lungs, has grown. So Bucky follows him because he's learned he's good at taking orders. Not thinking, protecting from a distance; it's what he wants.

Then it's a zip line and the chance to bag Zola, definitely not retribution for those trips to Coney Island in their youth. Bucky's fine, he's doing deep breathing and then he lands and there's a fight. His blood is singing and his heart is in his throat when Steve slams against the other side of the door. Close-quarters combat, Bucky was trained and he knows Steve can take care of himself. Then the shield is on his arm and Bucky's deflecting the laser beam (he wonders when his life became pulp fiction - all that's missing is the dame with the great rack, but then again, that's probably covered by Steve's British lady.) So the shield is his for a split second and Bucky wonders how Steve can stand all the pressure, the weight of a nation, and then it's blue sky and gunmetal grey wire, Steve screaming and scrabbling, grasping, falling.

There's time to think, on the way down. The nickel movies never told Bucky that sometimes heroes die.

He tumbles, head over feet, snow, sky, rocks - he hopes it won't hurt. He lands in a snow drift and maybe there is a God. His wrist, he buries in snow because it hurts something fierce and there's no Doctor Abernathy around the corner to make him a splint. It's cold, so cold, and he can faintly hear the train thunder away above him. The sky is blue, the rocks are grey, and Bucky grows tired. He shivers and shudders, night falls and he melts snow in his mouth to drink.

He falls asleep and doesn't expect to wake up.

He does though; he wakes up in a room that's an awful lot like the HYDRA one. Bucky struggles and his body is lopsided. He can't move his head, he's strapped down again and how is this his life? Who are these people around him, moving with faces covered in doctor's masks - Bucky watches, paralyzed yet warm. His eyes slide shut at the whine of a drill and juddering pain in his shoulder socket, blessed darkness swallowing him up.

Brown eyes snap open and he is just a man. Children's textbooks for a brand new language. The reborn man is hyperaware and intelligent, picking up Russian quicker than they thought. (It takes him some time to lose the American accent. He becomes an expert at mimicry until it's his voice alone that he hears in the empty rooms. He sounds just like the one giving orders.) The generals applaud and their mouths twist up ever so slightly. There's a red star on his arm and the man answers to Yakov. It translates to James, in English. That's his name but he is not English any more, if he ever was. They put a gun in his hands and off he goes, killing mindlessly and resting in a cryogenic coffin.

He goes on enough of the missions that he can slip his mental leash, feeling the edges of the programming and what's his own. Going off-grid to explore the town before the decimation, ordering food in a restaurant just to see the waitress smile; it's a waiting game because Yakov has already figured out he won't be here forever. There are no memories of before, nothing except white and pain and grasping hands that fail to connect.

It's another one of these missions that Yakov meets her. This is the young woman (in truth, he thinks she's 14 if a day, but in Russia everyone grows up quickly) with the codename Black Widow. He teaches her to use her body as a weapon to follow orders with no hint of disobedience. They chainsmoke together on the roof, talking in English and half-remembered slang that Yakov pulls from somewhere in his brain. It's snowing and Natalia is wearing his fur hat. It slips over her ears and forehead and Yakov thinks she looks younger than she'd like to. He never says a word, but that's the start of a brief partnership.

They only work together once. She is seventeen and nearly a woman, fierce and independent. He wonders what will happen to her when he leaves her side, what those in charge have planned for her future. The man knows the legacy of her codename and hopes he gets to see her again.

It's a quick assignment, in and out. Yakov sets up across the street as Natalia infiltrates as a courier. She sashays past the secretary with blood-red lips and uses her training with fluid moves that belie her age. She slips away and Bucky packs up his rifle, unneeded exactly like he thought it would be.

The Black Widow returns to the house on the outskirts of town, flushed and smiling as soon as the door shuts behind her. Her body is loose-limbed, even as she recounts the way it felt to hear the bones break, the adrenaline thrum through her veins as she escaped down the stairwell.

She looks at him then, sitting across the table with dark, dark eyes. What do you do when violence isn't enough, she asks. There are other ways to use your body, I am sure. Her tone is serious, and Yakov leans forward in his chair.

I can teach you that too, he answers after a moment's contemplation. Her lips curl up and he smirks back. It's familiar, smiling like this at a dame and Yakov shakes his head at the brief interrupting thought that there should be another boy behind him, face clouded in haze and the resulting flash of pain. Memories from before are always like that, but Yakov doesn't strain to hold it any more close than his night-time dreams of snow and falling. They are few and far between, anyhow.

Natalia sees the wince across his face and leans over to put a slim hand on his metal arm. It's curled in a fist, but relaxes slowly when she says they don't have to, she can talk to someone else about this, he must be busy because he's The Winter Soldier.

You wanted the best, he questions jokingly. The young woman wets her lips and Yakov covers her hand with his own human one. He leads her to the bedroom in the back and hovers over her before pushing, taking, teaching. She's a fast study. It's closer to sunrise when they quit and both their bodies are limp, exhausted. He pulls her close and tucks his head against her red hair, whispering words in English about the generals in charge and what tics he noticed among them, the beauty of the world she'll get to see. He doesn't say that he hopes he'll be there, watching her back.

He gets Natalia to drink instant coffee for the dozenth time in the morning and delights in the fact that she takes it just like he does. This is his private joke on the masters that hold their leash. Her eyes are bright in the sunlight, and Yakov wonders not the first time what he's done by teaching her all he knows.

He sleeps and wakes, thaws to find the Black Widow all grown up and yelling at the world. She's old, so old in her bright green eyes, and he wonders what she's seen. He gives her what he has in his veins, it's the best that the Soviet scientists could recreate from his blood and DNA. She takes the serum, hands stained with her mentor's blood in a snow-covered alley. (He would have given it to her without the order.) Then he goes to sleep again, feet dragging on the metal walkways with every step his boots take. One in front of the other, back into stasis and permanent sleep where he doesn't age.

Part 1B: Natalia
She's a young thing, cotton nightdress to her knees, when she arrives at the orphanage. The girl isn't there for long, because a man named Ivan, military medals gleaming on his chest, comes to take her away. He is her father-figure, the light in her life. She wants to make him proud and so she signs her life away for the good of her country. Her Ivan is a military man and Russia will take care of its own, Natalia has faith. (She has faint memories of an onion-dome church and incense, but it's all marred by smoke and ash and licking tongues of flame. She never saw her parents after that night.)

It is a cut-throat world, known colloquially as the Red Room. Girls upon girls, barracks and military precision. Combat lessons, foreign languages, dancing and the arts. Poisoning, weaponry, using your body as a shield, as a message, as a tool. She becomes the best, breaking records and setting new ones. Ivan is pleased, the generals in charge are awed, and Natalia is sent on her first kill.

She is twelve years old.

Yakov - call me James, I'm teaching you English, kid - comes to her a couple of years later. Time passes differently, Natalia sometimes thinks, in this training bunker full of routines and secrets and backstabbing politics. (She has more enemies than friends, the Red Room is not a place for the latter.) He makes her feel like a real girl, like the ones she passes by on the streets above in the daylight hours. Natalia learns English until he says she's fluent, and it becomes their code, making up words, smashing them together until it's just the two of them who can understand. They drink coffee instead of tea, hidden up on the roof.

He accompanies her for the first time when she's sixteen, watching from across the street through a window as Natalia winds her legs around the mark's neck and flips him over with his own body weight. She returns to their safe house, exhilarated at success and high on adrenaline. Her body is a weapon, the only one she'll need. It's the only one she can count on. James shows her a different use for it, that night. (He isn't gentle, but that isn't what she wants. It's not in their code to be soft; they want, take, have, and this is no different. They stay up half the night and Natalia returns to the Red Room barrack with a new secret that is theirs alone.) He makes her coffee in the morning and it is bitter and hot on her tongue.

This is the Winter Soldier and she is the Black Widow, sharing drip coffee in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of a small Russian town. They are the most feared in their profession, rumors told in whispers to the new recruits. He smiles at her before upending his cup to the dregs and it takes years off his face.

She comes across James in the cyrogenic chamber once. The image is enough to give her pause. Natalia slinks away from a room she wasn't supposed to be in in the first place and tries to forget. It's years before she sees him again, and he's giving her a chance to live. She takes the serum with an outstretched hand, as Ivan bleeds out in her lap.

Ivan dies and the Winter Soldier disappears. Natalia runs, far and fast, from the Soviets and the place she once called home. She takes work where she can, trading on her name for the highest bidder. Nothing touches her calm exterior, not even a hospital fire that she sets herself. She never takes work near the border of her home country and makes boltholes in most of the major European cities. Rumors from the underbelly say that the Red Room is disbanded under the new government and Natalia drinks to the memory. She drinks and drinks, surrounded by her weapons and cheap potato vodka in an opulent room in Salzburg. Her birthplace was terrible and beautiful, the training that made her what she is today. Natalia recognizes that and only spends a brief moment on regret that she was responsible for introducing Drakov's daughter to the world. (She might be an assassin but she's not a machine.)

It is a rainy night and SHIELD has followed her around from Bucharest to Luxembourg to Marseilles. The archer strikes a deal and handcuffs her himself. His calloused fingers are thick and warm on her wrists, though the metal cinches aren't tight enough. Natalia decides to wear them anyhow, just to see where it leads.

Chapter Text

Natasha spends hours upon hours in a windowless interrogation room, bland men in suits marching in with file folders and words. She could tell them they're wasting their time and hers, as she writes pages upon pages of her crimes and contacts, ink tripping down the yellow legal pads they slide across the table. She won't speak before she's ready and their pink mouths thin like she's not what they expected.

Natalia - Natasha now, because she has left Natalia in the cold. Not to die but she is frozen, put to rest because that girl is no longer needed. – doesn't know who she should be. She has been so many people over the years, even she is unsure what's real and what's not. (Her leg is chained the table, the metal rattles every time she shifts her body. It is her anchor in this new world, a physical leash. The chain stays on until a suit she comes to know as Coulson demands its removal. Natasha stares at him across the table and he doesn't flinch. She respects him, just a little, because her look has made some lesser men cry.) Her leg is lighter but she doesn't run. Whoever, whatever Natasha is, she is always loyal.

She sleeps in a barren room, a cot and chest of drawers on opposite walls. She sleeps lightly, waiting for men to knock on her door, for a trap to be triggered. (She's always been a light sleeper, it's something you learned quickly in her line of work. It's saved her life twice so far.) No one disturbs her.

Natasha meets Director Fury on a Thursday night. It's dark outside and her watch tells her it is late. Far later than most men should be at work and it is the first time she wonders if he sleeps in the HQ. His office is wiped clean of papers, folder covers shut but he doesn't hide the photographs that put him in war zone after war zone. She doesn't stare at his patch or the red healing scars on either side, just folds herself into the seat across from his desk.

He's reading her handwritten dossier, lips chapped and expression blank. He hums every so often but the silence doesn't bother Natasha. She lets it grow between them and the man looks up eventually. He stares at her, into her, and it's almost like the generals of old. Because of his carriage, his slow decisive manner of speech but Natasha can tell if he were angry, he'd burn white-hot. (She wants to see that happen but now is not the time.)

I've gone to bat for you, Ms. Romanova. The man in charge says without blinking. She nods once at the unexpected news. Don't make me regret it. He stands, and drops her papers in a desk drawer that he locks up. You're far too good for the new recruit training-

I'm not a recruit, she interrupts for the first time. Her voice is quiet, a vague accent that might be Brooklyn-inspired. He smiles, flash of teeth bright and wide.

Indeed, the man in charge agrees. You'll be working under Agent Coulson, with Barton if he behaves himself in the coming weeks. I want you to continue exactly what you were doing earlier, but we will give you better weapons, medical attention and whatever else you require to do your job to the best of your abilities. Natasha listens to the speech, soaking it in until she is dismissed.

There's a soft tap at the door and Natasha opens it to Barton's face, face crinkled in happiness. Want to spar, he says. She raises an eyebrow, because she has been cleared by SHIELD's authorities just a few hours prior and this is the first she's seen of the man who made his own decision.

Is that wise? I could crush you without a thought, she responds but she's smiling without showing teeth. Barton nods and ushers her out of the cell SHIELD deigns to call a room. They go to the gym and gain a standing-room-only audience of recruits and SHIELD agents in uniform. She puts the marksman on his back nine times out of ten, faltering when she realizes his acrobatic tricks are from a circus and she gets a flash of memory that is maybe real or not real. (Pink satin ribbons, bright stage lights and pointed toes, barre bars and a room of mirrors; or is it the dream of a little girl that died too long ago?)

Their first mission is supposedly simple, but nothing ever is, Natasha has learned. It's more a test than anything else, but what her new masters don't know is that she always exceeds expectations. She runs out of ammo and Barton tosses a fresh clip at her. The woman catches it one-handed and slams it home, returns to the firefight. Thank you, she says as the last body falls to the floor. Anytime, he responds with a smirk, nudging the cooling corpse with the steel toe of his combat boot. If you die, I die. Can't let that happen now, can I?

It has been a long time since Natasha has had a partner to watch her back. James was removed the one time, the only mission they shared. Clint can be up high in the perch he favors, but there is nothing stopping him from swinging down to fight alongside her. It's a different feeling and it sends a thrill through Natasha, knowing that there is one person in this world, at least, who doesn't expect her stab him in the back at an opportune moment.

Coulson is their handler, the unassuming man with a steel core and soft voice, armed with dry wit and high-end suits. He picks them up after every mission and takes their debrief, neat handwriting soon replaced with the tap-tap of a keyboard in his office once he learns her memory doesn't falter with time. It means she can come in the next day, instead of immediately after. There is a leather couch, when the office is moved to a corner and four floors up. Clint sits and fletches often enough that there is a tiny bottle of glue in position on the small table nearby. Natasha curls up and reads, in Russian, in English, in French and Arabic. She teaches herself Catalan and Portuguese, and Coulson handles his own tasks.

Her ledger (she has a vague idea of its length, because James once said that keeping count was a swell way to the madhouse. They had laughed themselves hoarse that night, at the idea of the Motherland would lock them away. It would be crueler to force them to continue in their line of work.) is blotted red and seeping blood. Natasha finds she doesn't mind so much, because that seems to be her lot in life. SHIELD once attempts to send her on a cliche undercover mission; she participates though she snaps the neck of three men. Coulson handles the rest of the paperwork and there is no more talk of her being anything more than what her skillset is. Deep infiltration, knowledge of the Motherland (it's an ache, sometimes. Natasha stands on the roof and lets the cold wind whip over her, nearly through her. She smokes a lone cigarette in memory because there is no instant coffee that tastes the same), Natasha is called upon to be dispatched silently and let the lifeblood of others stain her boots. She doesn't mind.

 

Tony Stark disappears in Afghanistan. She and Clint spend fruitless weeks combing the desert - the eccentric genius pops up in two grids over from their current position. Natasha is read in on the search for a national icon in the Arctic and refrains from scoffing. She's seen what happens to heroes and where the future leads - she is old, older than she wrote on that handwritten page so many years ago. Clint has aged well, weathering the stress of the job in the lines of his face and the scars on his body (they've sat vigil in Medical for each other more than once) but she still remains youthful, red curls and a mocking pout every time her partner brings it up.

It's almost a joke between them; she doesn't think he realizes that she lies awake at night and wonders when the serum will falter. She knows it's her place to die in battle, Natasha only hopes it is a good one.

Tony Stark's ego runs rampant in the press and she is assigned for infiltration in Legal, then as his assistant. Pepper Potts tries to see through the disguise and Natasha has never been good at another woman's jealousy. She befriends her, instead, and learns to enjoy the competent company of the new CEO. Natasha takes a small amount of pleasure in healing Stark, however temporary the injection is, and lets Fury curl his arm around her in the small donut shop. He's become an almost-mentor to her, and it's now him that her orders come from. Barton still listens to Coulson but she has risen beyond and above - though a soft spot, like an aching bruise, remains for the handler they once shared. He still lets her slip into his office and read when she needs the quiet.

She returns to SHIELD after Hammer Industries and slamming the whining man against a table, and Fury calls her to his office.

The Initiative is a pipe-dream that stays in a file folder under lock and key. Natasha takes assignments with Barton and Coulson as the WTC demands more of Fury's time and he fights them in closed-door conference calls. There is Budapest, memorable because it is guns blazing and empty quiver, the telltale click of a chamber without bullets and the WTC had to have a hand in this, Natasha knows from her natural suspicions - but she and Barton survive the odds and Coulson marches straight to Fury's office when they return with a broken right leg and mangled hand between them. The bruises take weeks to fade and Natasha wears them like a badge of honor.

Then Barton is compromised and the Initiative is in its test run. She faces a monster of pure rage and huddles into herself when it careens into the storage area. If she dies, she dies and there's not much she can do about it, but this is not the way she wants to go out. The Red Room didn't train fear out of their operatives, fear kept you alive. It doesn't, however, mean it's any fun to stopper your gasping breath with a shaking hand to your mouth, to feel your body tremble as the sounds of a rage-filled monster fights a literal god no more than 400 yards away.

Fury's voice is a bark across the comms, her former partner has been identified and is heading to the detention level. Natasha raises a shaking hand and lets him know she'll take care of it. She owes it to him. Natasha has James's voice in her ear, a whisper of a time long ago about skirting the edges of programming. There is no reason to think that however Clint is being controlled is in any way different. (It can't be. Natasha has plenty of tools at her disposal but fighting gods and magic and monsters are not in her arsenal.)

They fight, no holding back. He pulls her hair and she bites his arm, reduced to the moves of children because she is aiming not to maim. He raises his head at the end, a whisper of her nickname that only falls from his lips, and she punches him once more because it is not Clint before her. His eyes are too bright, unnatural. Natasha holds back a shiver and hauls him over her shoulder to carry him away.

The announcement of Coulson's death is a metaphorical punch to the gut. Natasha is winded from the fight and closes her eyes in brief mourning.

Fury calls her to his office again, after the battle high has worn off. She is blood-spattered with a belly full of meat because Tony (he is Tony now, you call a man by his first name once he has made himself in battle) has odd ideas. But Natasha had enjoyed shawarma, more so the sight of her comrades falling asleep face-first in the food.

I heard a rumor once, Fury starts and Natasha holds her breath. There was a tale of a woman and a man, the best operatives during the Cold War. Of course, she is not you because everyone knows the codename Black Widow is passed down amongst girls - Natasha smoothes her face to her mask of attention and good-soldier but her heart stops when Fury asks if she's heard of the Winter Soldier.

+ +

James floats in storage, in nutrient-laden hydration, in stasis. Time rolls on and the world spins on its axis and the building is covered in a fine layer of dust. There are no footprints, there have been no visitors. Spiders and rats nest amongst the machines, home among the disbanded project of long ago, a simpler time and the ruins of the disavowed who exist in the lines around men's eyes and in whispers told in shadows. (Names hold power, no matter how much time has passed.)

Lights shine into unseeing eyes and careful hands unhook wires.

He blinks once and lashes out because he is not ever going back to the tank. The Winter Soldier is done sleeping, no matter how much time has passed. It's quick work to incapacitate several black-clad guards that perform like some sort of futuristic security team, but there is nothing to be done at the prick of a needle to his very human neck. His scream of rage and primal animal instinct dies out, ringing cry echoing in the abandoned lab.

The man's eyes slide shut but he knows something has changed. He can only hope it's for the better.

Chapter Text

All she can do is nod at the name she told herself was buried and Fury tells her to follow him down to the medical wing. He explains on the way down that they have found the man of legend, that SHIELD has reprogrammed him to their side. Natasha holds back a shiver at the thought of what that entails and watches the numbers drop in the elevator.

James lays on a bed, metal arm gleaming dully in the overhead light. His eyes are shut, his chest moves steadily up and down. Natasha stays near the doorway and the world is put on pause. Fury sweeps past her to stand at the end of the bed. James is tied down and he wakes when Fury stops moving.

Come to give me an offer, then? James says, and his voice is hoarse from disuse. His brown eyes flick past the director to Natasha's face and she blinks twice. Oh, James says. You brought me a dame, how nice of you. His voice is challenging, a leer that Natasha knows is an act.

There is still a red star on his bicep and Fury leaves soon after. Natasha sinks into the chair by the bed. The man lying down twists his head and gives her a bright smile.

You're in America, she says in halting Russian, fumbling for what to tell him. Years have passed and he saved her life that night so long ago. She owes him a debt. They poked at you, the killswitch is removed.

Yeah, how's that? James asks roughly. His metal arm clenches into a fist. It takes a special type of man to kill another, and she nods. Natasha doesn't say I missed you because that is nothing but empty words and they are not one for them. She knows what type of man James is, why it is the two of them work so effortlessly together and it is not all because they came in from the cold.

Want to see the city? It's the future now, and she undoes the buckles of his restraints, without a care to Fury or the medical staff. (It always is for me, he answers. At least it's us against the world, she responds and he grins, a rare sight.) Few cross the Black Widow and her stride is purposeful through the halls of headquarters. No one stops them and she checks out a motorcycle from the vehicle pool.

They zip around New York City, dodging traffic and tourists. James's arms are tight around her waist, chest pressed to her back and she smiles inside the helmet, secretive and just for her. The air is polluted and sticky, sunshine warming the leather they wear and the black tar they travel on.

It is the two of them, holding tight against each other, them and the road. Natasha thinks about turning left, leaving the city and disappearing into one of her boltholes but James deserves more.

Natasha takes him to a 24-hour diner instead and watches him order pancakes. He is pale under the fluorescent lighting, dark circles beneath his eyes and metal hidden under plain cotton and leather gloves. She drinks coffee and it is hot, strong, not bitter enough as in her memories.

They don’t speak, there isn’t much to say. They look at each other with eyes too old for their youthful faces. She wonders what her mentor sees when he casts his gaze upon her, crushing the instinct to jerk her head back when he reaches to tuck a sweat-damp curl behind her ear. James smiles again and it is boyishly charming.

SHIELD demands their price upon their return: James back to the medical bed with too-stiff sheets and Natasha into a conference. There's a certain independence that comes with being a high-ranking SHIELD agent and Natasha is classified as a consultant, not an agent besides. She offers to take the Winter Soldier under her wing, glare cutting back any who would argue. She thinks it is only her who can teach what the world is like today, because she was there with him in the earlier times, when it was the two of them on a cold roof, nicotine in their lungs and eyes sharp on the trainees below. The people gathered around the table listen to her firm words with rapt attention; it is one of the few times Agent Romanova has spoken up with anything approaching passion. The shadowed figures say they will consider the request and Nick Fury steers her out of the room without a word.

The meeting was a week ago but the confirmation came in an envelope today: the Winter Soldier is her responsibility by a narrow vote. Natasha thinks, sometimes, late at night in the quiet that is so rare (she finds it in soundproofed rooms, in ballet studios, never in her own mind with closed eyes) that Steve might be able to relate. Steve is also a man stepped out of time and thrust back in; he even knew James when he still answered to Bucky. Natasha doesn’t know Bucky, but she has read the dossier on James Buchanan Barnes, Howling Commando in WWII and killed-in-action. She might have liked him and now, she sees glimpses.

She doesn't have the courage to ask yet, if Steve Rogers would be willing to work with her. They may have fought monsters and aliens together, but they are not the same. He is bravery and nobility and freedom in a red-white-blue flag and Natasha knows it makes him uneasy that she is at SHIELD’s beck and call, that she once upon a time traded her loyalty to the highest bidder. They are bridging that gap, slowly, like ice defrosting on a window pane. He sketches and she reads mission debriefs as Tony plays at being the madcap inventor a few floors below.

James takes care of it for her, because she arrives to spar early one morning and is greeted with the low sound of men’s laughter. It’s companionable and easy, recognizable to her ears but unheard in far too long. Steve stands in her usual place, towel around his bare throat.

He is not Captain America but a broad-shouldered man, standing tall above even James because that is who he is, cowl or not. You’re different than I remember, Steve remarks and he runs a hand down the metal plates with little hesitation. Natasha is still, frozen in the doorway.

You’re just the same punk kid from Brooklyn, James says and it’s an echo of something Natasha can’t reach. She tells herself it doesn’t hurt and walks into the room. Both men turn to greet her but it is dark eyes that watch her hips sway. Cornflower blue eyes hold hers and the gaze is guileless. Natasha hits harder than usual that day and James doesn’t say a word about it.

It is the two of them, it always has been and will be. The Council sends them out to keep an eye on a developing cell in Masirah and the Black Widow lays cover fire for the Winter Soldier.

He returns to the safe house grim-faced and bloody. Their roles are reversed, mirror images of that first mission. James showers off the battle and Natasha brews the coffee she borrowed from Steve’s supply, instant pungent powder that swirls into hot water with the stir of a spoon.

Hair wet, he steps into the kitchen and stops short. Is this a celebration?

You are your own man, she replies and pushes the white china mug towards the empty seat across from hers.

I always have been, and they both skirt the fact that not so long ago he wasn’t quite. This tastes just like- and his smile is infectious, noxious.

Borrowed it from your pal, Natasha says with a put-upon Brooklyn accent, just to hear the man laugh. His eyebrows rise up at the confession.

Is he aware of this, the look passes between them.

Steve seems like a nice guy, Natasha says carefully. I don’t think he’ll mind too much. She doesn’t want to commit nor disparage the man she doesn’t really know. She has watched Steve, in their downtimes and in battles.

Memories can tarnish, I’m not sure I remember him like he wants. SHIELD did a lot but he can’t wait forever. James confesses in the stillness between them, and drains his coffee. I think I’m tired now. His mug clinks against the wood, chair creaking as he stands and wanders back to the bedroom.

It doesn’t have to be like this, we can disappear, Natasha whispers against brown hair when she slips into the bed beside him. James doesn’t sit up but he does turn his head to look at her.

No, Natalia. The name she hasn’t heard, hasn’t told anyone, rolls off his tongue and they are in a bed, years ago, bodies aching pleasantly and bloody clothes in the corner. We must only go forward.

++

James likes seeing what he taught her put into practice, what she's picked up on her own while he was frozen. Natasha watches in admiration at the best soldier Mother Russia has ever produced in the past, present or future because he is quicksilver and silent and better than she could possibly hope to be. (He runs a finger over her cheekbone, wipes away a spot of blood on her pale skin. Natasha's breath is frozen in her lungs but he doesn't do anything else, just turns away on silent feet, a gruff order to retreat because the mission objective has been obtained. She is just past 15 and her hair touches her shoulders. It is her second mission with the code name Black Widow. She thinks it sounds perfect falling from his pink lips.)

They work together, only them. Soon enough Steve joins and Natasha is reminded that he was a soldier of before too. He is ruthless, throwing his shield and not pulling punches. Bodies drop at their feet and James picks off stragglers one by one. Steve shades his eyes from the sun, salutes the rooftop where he is set up. James’s laugh echoes over the comms.

It can’t last forever.

++

Thor has visited once or twice, but his time is less than it was before and Asgard is a wholly different place than Earth. He is not a demi-god any longer, unsure of his power. It is the five of them protecting the planet they’ve walked twice over and the passage of time has not, will not be kind.

Natasha watches with worry in her eyes as Clint runs his body too hard for too long. She spends more time with him than James and Steve, and they don’t begrudge her. (A bowler hat hangs on the coat rack in the apartment they share and she knows she is getting a chance neither of them had.) Natasha mourns and lays a rose on his grave.

Tony Stark, billionaire and engineer, eccentric and there is none like him in the world. He is the last scion and his technology is not built for failure. Tony Stark, less machine than everyone thinks, is only human. Frail and weak, aging and old. Pepper before him, laid to rest with sunflowers on a cloudy day.

Bruce, he looks at the three with envious eyes. Because the Hulk was his attempt at recreating the Serum and look what happened. The Hulk, the other side, his rage manifest - it keeps his body aging slightly slower than normal but there is more salt than pepper in his hair now. It is coming, creeping up and he spends more time in his lab than ever before.

Steve is still a youthful face and James and Natasha, they look the same as well: battle-weary with hard eyes and young bodies. It is the three of them who break bread together, and slowly Steve's brain catches up with what Natasha and his best friend from the 1940s have already come to peace with: they might die one day. In battle, of old age long after they should have. Or they may not.

Experiments don’t come with instructions. It is a sobering thought, a weight around their neck. They keep breathing because no one taught them to do anything else.

Tony lives on in name only, legacy lighting the sky. The Tower is modern and green, the four of them save the world but it's not like it was before. There are kids who emulate them, and Natasha takes the archer girl under her wing because Clint was her friend.

Bruce slows down as men do and the Hulk is not infirm, never weak, but he is less than before.
It remains the three of them, always together, bonded and stretching across time. Even they don't know how long.

Thor comes back from Asgard, to look at Erik Selvig's notes and to hold Jane Foster's arthritic hands. What have you done to yourself, he asks the three, and he is older than they remember. He wears a crown now but they do not kneel before him.

Steve shakes his hand and shrugs, small smile on his face. He has made peace with the fact that this is his life now. Thor smiles - he leaves them to search out his Jane and he comes back with a tear-damp beard because it is almost her time - and offers to take them to his home. He is King now, the cycle is fulfilling itself as prophecies always do.

The three consider it, but do not accept. Earth is their home, no matter that SHIELD has long since developed the technology to open the other Realms. That is Thor's warning, that they are inviting themselves to things they do not, never will, understand. A warning that because he is King, he can no longer be protector as he once was in his youth. He will not come to save them like before; on their own heads be it.

Natasha says she understands because time brings out what is important to a person. Steve doesn't hold it against him and James picks Thor's vast knowledge of the Others for better tactical plans. They will be ready, they will defend, avenge the Earth, until it dies or they fall. Thor holds his fist against his breast, a warrior’s sign.

The best of luck to you, may your feet carry you swiftly through battle. He repeats in a deep slow voice, ancient and foreign verse of something older than them a blessing they are surprised they deserve. Lightning cracks down and then it is only them in the room.

They prepare for battle.